March 5, 2012

Will Big Gas replace Big Oil?

I first posted something about fracking in June, 2010, and the topic is still controversial. I was asked to talk about fracking with Williamsburg's Middle Plantation Club and gathered a LOT of recent information. So I'm posting the beginning of my presentation here.

If you have been living on a deserted island . . .Hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" is the controversial technology that allows drilling companies to get natural gas out of shale rock. And an unprecedented gas drilling boom is taking place in the U.S. thanks to this technology. It promises either to provide Americans with a clean domestic energy source or to spoil rural areas while poisoning our drinking water, depending on whom you ask.
Fracking has been in weekly headlines for the past few months. The term can be seen in many anti-fracking headlines—such as “no fracking way”and “what the frack is going on.”

Is Natural Gas Our Energy Answer? It’s the “other fossil fuel.” It burns cleaner than coal, and it’s cheaper than oil  And there’s a LOT of it in OUR country, so much coming from our wells that its price is near a seven-year low.

So will Big Oil be replaced by Big Gas? Some would have you believe so, stating that the US has a 100 year supply of untapped natural gas and that the industry will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of this decade. Or are these claims exaggerated?

In his State of the Union address one month ago, President Obama praised the potential of the country's tremendous supply of natural gas buried in shale rock. Assuming that the United States continues to use about 24 trillion cubic feet of natural gas per year, some determine that only an 11-year supply of natural gas is certain. The other 89 years’ worth has not yet been shown to exist or to be recoverable.

Chevron invested $4.3 billion in 2010 to buy up natural gas fields in the Northeast US and Exxon invested $30 billion, so they must see future major profits.

But natural-gas proponents (such as T. Boone Pickens) are NOT advocating CURRENT rates of consumption. They propose switching a substantial part of our power generation from coal to gas, in order to reduce carbon emissions. Click here to learn more about the Pickens Plan.

And Pickens wants to see more than 2 million 18-wheelers converted to natural gas, in order to reduce our dependence on oil imports from unfriendly countries. So the math changes if you factor these advances into the equation.

Some coal plants in Virginia are switching from coal to gas. Natural gas generated about 16 percent of our electricity a decade ago; and now it’s up to 23 percent.

As an aside, I’d drop my opposition to the proposed power plant across the James River from Williamsburg if they’d burn gas instead of coal. You probably read that the Surry County Planning Commission just reaffirmed their support for ODEC’s proposed coal-burning plant. However, they did recommend additional restrictions about the disposal of the coal ash that’s a byproduct of generating electricity and requiring the power company to address emergencies during the 4-year construction period. But we’ve seen how large companies like BP can allow gross negligence if it favors the bottom line, and that energy companies do not ALWAYS take reasonable steps to avert a disaster. Fukashima comes to mind. But that’s another topic.

You have probably heard of the vast, rocky netherworld called the Marcellus Shale deposit. Pennsylvania has been called the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas” because it sits atop Marcellus Shale. This rock formation, roughly the size of Greece, lies more than a mile beneath the Appalachian landscape, stretching from Virginia to the southern half of New York. The shale rock contains bubbles of methane, the remains of life from 400 million years ago.

Gas corporations have lusted for the methane in the Marcellus since at least 1967 when one of them plotted with the Atomic Energy Agency to explode a nuclear bomb to unleash it. SERIOUSLY! That idea died, but it’s been reborn in the form of a new technology—high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing—or “fracking” for short.